How Hiking Can Make You A Faster Trail Runner

Tayte Pollmann’s articles are supported by American Trail Running Association corporate member Nike Trail Running. You can follow Tayte’s adventures on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Hiking is one of the best ways for trail runners to cross train. Hiking improves your cardiovascular fitness with minimal impact on your joints, strengthens muscle groups essential for trail running, and is a great way to spend more time outside. Listed below are three ways you can use hiking to improve your trail running.

Backpackers on the Mardi Himal Trek in the Himalayas.

Practice Challenging Terrain
Hiking allows you to gain familiarity on challenging terrain you may encounter in your trail training or racing, such as mud, boulder fields, sand hills, steep ascents, gnarly descents, and ridge lines. When encountering these difficult types of terrain, your natural response may be to stop running. I nearly froze the first time I encountered a high rocky ridge on one of my training runs. My unfamiliarity with this type of terrain (and fear of falling off the mountain!) restricted me from running and I turned around.

Now, after much practice, I can run on similar ridges without hesitation. Hiking on challenging terrain may help you slow down and get accustomed to its difficulties. I suggest doing one hike per month on terrain that pushes you just a bit outside your comfort zone, while also staying safe and assessing risk carefully. The more time you spend on difficult terrain, the more comfortable you will feel and the faster you will be able to run on it.

My University of Portland Cross Country teammates hiking in my hometown of Sandy, Utah.

Spend More Time on Your Feet with Less Impact
One of the biggest advantages of hiking is the amount of time you spend being active. Backpackers may spend 5-10 hours per day hiking, whereas even the most experienced runners spend at most 2-4 hours per day running. Hiking stimulates your cardio and activates many of the same muscles you use when trail running. It also has lower impact forces than running, which reduces your risk of injury.

I suggest adding one 2-3 hour hike per week or combining a hike and run to increase the overall time of your activity. For a combined hike and run, consider switching between hiking and running every 20 minutes.

My friend Alejandro Venzor enjoying a hike in Southern Utah.

Explore Your Race Course
If you have a race coming up, hiking can be an effective way to familiarize yourself with the race course. Many runners like to run sections of the course in the days before a race, but this can often encourage running too much and feeling fatigued on race day. Hiking offers a way to save your energy and still know what to expect on the course. Hiking is especially important in races that feature large amounts of technical terrain or places where one could easily get lost.

If you arrive at the race before the course is marked, ask the race director for GPX files of the course that you can download to your phone or GPS watch. You can also see if someone you know may have the GPX data from running a previous edition of the race.

On a hike near Lake Tahoe before the 2019 Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.

Slow Down to Enjoy the Scenery
Stopping on a trail run is a great way to enjoy the scenery. However, the temptation to stop and interrupt a training run is often overshadowed by the need to achieve a goal time or pace. Hiking provides more opportunities to stop, reflect, take photographs, and enjoy the view without feeling like you should be moving at a faster pace.

Samdup, my adventure buddy in the Himalayas, leading our hike toward Thorung La Pass in Nepal.

Do you use poles while hiking? Consider reading our guide to using poles for a more efficient trail running (and hiking!) experience. A comprehensive guide with video “how-to” clips.